A giant owl that hasn’t been seen in the wild in 150 years has finally been spotted in a rainforest in Ghana — raising hopes for the survival of the vulnerable species.
The Shelley’s eagle-owl was sighted in the Atewa forest on October 16 by Imperial College London biologist Joseph Tobias and freelance ecologist Robert Williams.
Last definitively seen in Ghana in the 1870s — the same year it was first described — the nocturnal owl has become something of a ‘Holy Grail’ for birdwatchers in Africa.
While there have been many alleged sightings in the past few decades in Central and West Africa and as far afield as Angola and Liberia, all have been unconfirmed.
The Shelley’s Eagle-owl, which is more often heard than seen, is reported to make a distinct ‘kooouw sound that is louder than the calls of other owls.
Only grainy images of the bird from Belgium’s Antwerp Zoo in 1975 are known to be certain.
Meanwhile, some have claimed a 2005 photograph taken in the Congo shows a more recent specimen — but the image is said to be too pixelated to be sure.
Given its scarcity — with an estimated population of only a few thousand individuals — the Shelley’s Eagle Owl is considered to be vulnerable to extinction.
A giant owl that hasn’t been sighted in the wild in 150 years has been spotted in a rainforest in Ghana — raising hopes for the vulnerable species’ survival. Pictured: Shelley’s eagle-owl
The researchers — who are in Ghana studying the biological impacts of agricultural development in Africa as part of a UK Government-funded project — spotted the owl when they accidentally disturbed the bird from its daytime roost.
Dr Tobias stated, “It was so big, we initially thought it was an Eagle.”
“Fortunately it perched on a low tree branch, and when we lifted out our binoculars, our jaws dropped.” There is no other owl in Africa’s rainforests that big.’
While the owl only perched still for 10–15 seconds before flying away, the pair succeeded in take photographs from which the species could be confirmed.
They can be sure that the bird was indeed Shelley’s eagle-owl thanks to its distinguishing combination of distinctive black eyes, yellow bill, large size and barred patterning.
‘This is a sensational discovery,’ said biodiversity expert Nathaniel Annorbah of Ghana’s University of Environment and Sustainable Development.
“We have been looking for this mysterious bird for many years in the western lowlands. It’s a surprise to find it in the Eastern Region’s ridgetop forests.
The Shelley’s eagle-owl was first described in 1872 by noted British ornithologist Richard Bowdler Sharpe — curator of the Natural History Museum in London’s bird collection — after acquiring a specimen from a local hunter in Ghana.
The Shelley’s eagle-owl was first described in 1872 by noted British ornithologist Richard Bowdler Sharpe — curator of the Natural History Museum in London’s bird collection — after acquiring a specimen from a hunter in Ghana. Pictured: A picture of the owl, taken in 1875
Environmental groups such as the Friends of Atewa have requested that the forest be designated a National Park to ensure its protection.
Atewa is threatened by both illegal logging and mining for bauxite — used in the production of aluminium — although areas at higher elevations presently still support large areas of evergreen forest.
‘We hope this sighting draws attention to Atewa forest and its importance for conserving local biodiversity,’ said Dr Williams.
He concluded, “I hope that the discovery of such rare and magnificent owls will help these efforts to save one last wild forest in Ghana.”
The Shelley’s eagle owl was photographed by Robert Williams, a freelance ecologist and Joseph Tobias, an Imperial College London biologist.